Go East Young Man

PARIS – JUNE 07: (FILE PHOTO) Bohumil Hrabal poses while in Paris,France on a promotional visit on the 7th of June 1995. (Photo by Ulf Andersen/Getty Images)

England and Western Europe do not have a monopoly on great literature. I love prospecting for interesting writers from Eastern Europe. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that I am Hungarian (and Czech and Slovak), and that I feel that the writers of the East have gotten short shrift from the American literary establishment.

I have just finished reading Bohumil Hrabal’s Why I Write? and Other Early Prose Pieces, which consists of his early work, much of which was circulated via samizdat, or underground typescript distribution to bypass strict censorship. There is a freshness to most of the stories within and a sharp attention to dialog as it is actually spoken by common people. Several whole stories consist of stream of consciousness ramblings of Hrabal’s Uncle Pepin, who goes on for pages shifting from one topic to another. Footnotes explain many of the obscure local references to Bars in Prague and people unknown outside of the Czech Republic.

From Ukraine, there is Andrey Kurkov, whose Death and the Penguin fills us in on the absurdity of life in Kiev. His Ukraine Diaries bring us up to date on the tensions with Putin’s Russia.

The former Soviet Union is another good source, such as the literary journalism from Svetlana Alexievich of Belarus, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2015. I was appalled by her book of interviews on the Russian War in Afghanistan, called (in English) Zinky Boys. I also read Voices from Chernobyl, which gives a Russian perspective on that disaster.

Anna Politkovskaya’s criticisms of Putin cost her her life. She was murdered at her block of flats upon returning from grocery shopping. Her books on Chechnya (especially A Small Corner of Hell: Dispatches from Chechnya) and Putin’s Russia earned her the enmity of Putin, who cynically staged a show trial of several stooges who probably didn’t have anything to do with her killing.

Every month I try to read at least one Eastern European book. Often, they are the best things I’ve read that month.

Putin’s Kleptocracy

Something New from Mother Russia

Something New from Mother Russia

I know that some people think of Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin as the reincarnation of Stalin. Others on the right idolize him because, well, he persecutes gays. The truth is actually to be found elsewhere.

He definitely is a bad dude. Instead of killing people by the millions in Siberian gulags, he uses very targeted assassinations to eliminate some of his more outspoken enemies. In November 1998, soon after he took over the KGB, he had opposition Duma Deputy Galina Starovoitova murdered for her pro-democracy advocacy. As soon as Yeltsin named him Prime Minister a year later, he initiated a bombing campaign in Chechnya which led to hundreds of civilian deaths.

One outspoken critic of the Chechen war was Anna Politkovskaya, whose dispatches on the conflict I have read (and recommend: they are published under the name of A Small Corner of Hell). She paid dearly for her upstanding journalism: She was shot by KGB operatives at the door of her apartment in October 2006.

For a considerably longer list of his targets, click here.

What makes Putin radically different from his Communist forebears is that he is an oligarch in personal control of billions of rubles worth of assets, alone or with a small number of co-conspirators with whom he feels comfortable. There is an excellent review by Anne Applebaum in the December 18, 2014 issue of The New York Review of Books which is a review of Karen Dawisha’s Putin’s Kleptocracy: Who Owns Russia?

No fool, Putin knew that Communism was on the skids while he was still a KGB officer in Dresden, East Germany, and he prepared for the demise of the Soviet empire by beginning to gather people whom he could trust. In St. Petersburg in 1991, he entered in numerous “legally flawed contracts” in which he exported millions of dollars worth of commodities in return for food that never seems to have been delivered. He was in on the rise to power of Bank Rossiya, which he used for his financial and criminal deals. Putin-controlled entities include Ozero Dacha Consumer Cooperative; St. Petersburg Real Estate Holding Company (SPAG), which was involved in Russian and Colombian drug money laundering; the construction company Twentieth Trust; and probably biggest of all—Gazprom.

It is as if an American president controlled Morgan Stanley, Exxon, Cargill, and numerous other massive corporations which combined to do whatever legal or illegal he or she wished to accomplish.

And yet Putin’s popularity is still high among Russian voters at this time. He pays careful attention to cultural and foreign policy choices that are in tune with the Russian man in the street. This includes his support of the Russian Orthodox Church and its hierarchy, and his ham-fisted attempts to support the Russian population of industrialized East Ukraine.

 

“Her Impact Was … Very Slight”

Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya

I would like to say a few words on this subject [of Anna Politkovskaya’s murder]. First of all, I would like to say that no matter who committed this crime and no matter what the motives behind it, it was a horribly cruel crime and it cannot go unpunished. There could have been a number of different motives. This journalist was indeed a fierce critic of the current authorities in Russia. But, as the experts know, and as journalists should realise, I think, her impact on Russian political life was only very slight. She was well known in the media community, in human rights circles and in the West, but her influence on political life within Russia was very minimal. The murder of someone like her, the brutal murder of a woman and mother, was in itself an act directed against our country and against the Russian authorities. This murder deals a far greater blow to the authorities in Russia, and in Chechnya, to which she devoted much of her recent professional work, than did any of her publications. This is very clear to everyone in Russia. But, as I said, no matter what the motives behind the perpetrators’ actions, they are criminals and they must be identified, caught and punished. We will do everything necessary to ensure that this is done.—Vladimir Putin, News Conference in Germany, 2006

Revisiting: Anna Politkovskaya

Anna Politkovskaya: Read Her Books to Understand Today’s Russia

Anna Politkovskaya: Read Her Books to Understand Today’s Russia

This is an article I wrote for the old Yahoo! 360 back in 2008. Currently, I am reading Is Journalism Worth Dying For? Final Dispatches.

I have just had a harrowing experience, having finished reading Anna Politkovskaya’s A Dirty War: A Russian Reporter in Chechnya. We don’t hear much about Chechnya these days: Vladimir Putin has succeeded in muddying the waters by getting us all to regard the entire civilian population of the province as Muslim terrorists. Based on Politkovskaya’s reportage, there are actually four groups of terrorists in Chechnya:

  1. The actual terrorist bands themselves, highly mobile groups widely dispersed in the mountains of Chechnya, Ingushetia, and Daghestan.
  2. The Chechen civilian government under the Russians, which cynically exploits the suffering of the local population for financial gain.
  3. Contract soldiers, the Russian equivalent of Blackwater, which is a force on its own. They maintain pseudo-checkpoints which are simply an excuse for mayhem.
  4. The Russian Army itself, which authorizes local “cleansing” operations, consisting of robbery, torture, rape, and murder without being held responsible to anyone. Also, Russian soldiers themselves are frequently the victims of other units which have a bone to pick with them.

Running through the book are a series of stories about the Grozny Old Peoples’ Home. Most of the sick, elderly tenants are Russians, not Chechens; Russian Orthodox, not Islamic. Yet the residents are treated by all parties as the enemy. Politkovskaya (photograph above) wrote several articles explaining their plight, checking back with them every few months. They had no food or medical care, and were afraid to venture outside for fear of running afoul of armed parties of any description.

The only hospital in bombed-out Grozny had a few volunteer doctors, but no medicines. Such medications as were sent from Moscow were intercepted by the Chechen [pro-Russian] civilian government and sold on the black market.

When there were too many casualties in a Russian army operation, it was not unusual for the wounded to be taken not to a nearby military hospital, but to a more distant civilian hospital where there was no electricity, no medications, and only a skeleton staff. Whether they live or die, they are considered as deserters and therefore do not adversely affect any Russian officer’s military reputation. Many of the wounded soldiers die without identification, leading their families to spend years and a small fortune trying to find out what happened to their sons. (I wonder if this sort of thing was also going on [during the Soviet occupation of] Afghanistan.)

If you leave your apartment in Grozny, be very careful. You might find well-hidden anti-personnel mines at your doorstep or even within the apartment. This is a common cause of death throughout Chechnya.

When Politkovskaya encountered particularly obnoxious politicians or generals, she would publish their cell phone numbers in the Novaya Gazeta, for whom she worked at that time, and urge people to say to their face what they thought of them.

As one could expect, a woman like this makes lots of powerful enemies. On October 7, 2006, the crusading journalist was shot to death in the elevator on the way to her apartment in Moscow. After an “investigation” of sorts, no guilty party was found. Vladimir Putin, who most likely ordered the assassination, points the finger at some unnamed gunman from the West. After all, he says, she had no influence in Russia: Her audience were mostly liberals in Europe and America.

Politkovskaya was a singularly brave journalist and paid the ultimate price for it. Compare them to American journalists who were supinely complicit in the atrocities of the Bush-Cheney administration. No awards for courage there.